Brexit split with EU over personal data risks harming UK business and security, report warns

A Conservative former home secretary has backed calls for Boris Johnson’s successor to drop his Brexit plan to divorce the EU on data regulation, amid warnings it would cost businesses billions.

A new report by the former leader of Tory MPs, Lord Timothy Kirkhope, today warns that Johnson’s plan for a new UK-only data security rulebook could cut off the UK from the free exchange of information in Europe, undermining protections against international crime. and terrorism.

Businesses could be locked out of lucrative markets and could move outside the UK to avoid further trade barriers, while police and security agencies could lose access to vital information about suspects’ criminal records, fingerprints, DNA or car registrations. warns.

Author Lord Kirkhope, who led the Conservative group in the EU Parliament for six years and played a key role in drafting the EU’s GDPR data security system, told The independent that Johnson’s “ideological” proposal appeared to be driven by the impulse to demonstrate the benefits of Brexit.

But he said that “going it alone” on its own could deal a massive blow to trade in personal data-enabled services worth £85 billion in UK exports to the EU and £42 billion in EU imports in 2018.

And he warned Johnson’s lighter-touch regulatory system could mean personal data ends up in the hands of companies without citizens’ consent, in a way prevented by the GDPR.

Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd warned against allowing UK agencies to be locked out of EU-wide security arrangements, such as the Prüm Convention on counter-terrorism and cross-border crime cooperation, which rely on data sufficiency agreements with Brussels.

Backing the report, she said: “For security reasons, both for the UK and the EU, we should try to maintain the free flow of data.

“As a former Minister of the Interior, I saw firsthand how important it was to have access to Prüm, the European Criminal Records Information System and other databases to help tackle serious crime.”

Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd has backed the report (Getty)

Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd has backed the report (Getty)

Data sufficiency was a key part of Johnson’s Brexit deal negotiations, with the European Commission formally confirming in June 2021 that UK law provided equivalent protection to EU directives in the area.

Commission vice-president Vera Jourova made clear then that the status could be withdrawn at any time if the UK deviates too far from European norms, saying: “If anything changes on the British side, we will intervene.”

But just over two months later, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport launched a consultation on how the UK could “reshape” its regulatory framework outside the EU with the adoption of “agile and adaptable” data protection laws. This was followed in January by a “Benefits of Brexit” document setting out plans for a “pro-growth and innovation-friendly data protection regime”.

Johnson boasted that this could contribute to an £11bn deregulation boost to the UK economy from Brexit.

But today’s report, published by the Conservative European Forum and seen by The independentwarns that the potential loss of data streams will cost UK businesses far more.

The British government has been warned against putting data flows with the EU at risk (AFP/Getty)

The British government has been warned against putting data flows with the EU at risk (AFP/Getty)

Lord Kirkhope said it was “imperative” for either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak to “look again and reverse the UK government’s current policy” if they reach Downing Street on 10.

“The government is telling voters that it is right for Britain to ‘do its own thing’ after Brexit,” he said The independent. “It may appear to most people’s ears to be very attractive, but the truth of the matter is that once you move away from the international standards, there are inevitably huge costs and huge threats to business.”

Without free data flows, people may experience problems with their social media accounts, internet purchases or transferring money abroad. And companies may find themselves having to renegotiate contracts that temporarily stipulate GDPR compliance.

Some may try to operate under parallel UK and EU regimes, while others may move activities into the EU to avoid the burden of extra admin, the report warned.

Lord Kirkhope stressed he was not taking sides in the Tory leadership race and hoped both contestants would favor “pragmatism” over a commitment to severing ties with Brussels.

Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are being urged to ditch Boris Johnson's plan (PA)

Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are being urged to ditch Boris Johnson’s plan (PA)

But he said: “I hear Liz Truss saying ‘we can get rid of all this red tape in the EU’. Getting rid of EU red tape around data would seriously damage business and in international terms would make us stick out like a sore thumb and be less attractive to investors.”

His warning was backed by the Institute of Directors, whose policy director Roger Barker said: “The pursuit of regulatory divergence from the EU for its own sake makes little sense for business.

“Maintaining a high level of equivalence between the EU and UK data protection regimes is highly desirable for UK businesses, given the huge scale of imports and exports from the UK and the EU that rely on the free flow of data. The Government has yet to convincingly demonstrate how regulatory divergence for data protection will provide a net benefit to UK business.”

The UK Chambers of Commerce said the “data sufficiency” deal reached with the EU in 2021 provides “an important basis for continued data flows between both markets” and the UK government should be careful not to jeopardize it.

Head of trade policy William Bain told The independent: “The business needs to see a full impact assessment, details of proposed phase-in periods and legal guarantees that any plans for regulatory divergence will be commensurate with maintaining our data adequacy relationship with the EU.”

While acknowledging business complaints that GDPR is “far too restrictive”, Lord Kirkhope said there was no appetite from industry to add another competing enforcement system.

“I can’t see a situation where if we’re going to do our own thing, we don’t have to be at least as tough and probably with less flexibility than we have now,” he said.

“In the current economic climate, anything that actually has a negative effect on our trade seems to me to be completely unacceptable.”

And he was backed by Conservative former attorney general Dominic Grieve, who urged whichever of Mr Sunak or Mrs Truss becomes the next prime minister to abandon Johnson’s approach.

“The free flow of data is vital: for our economy, for our national security and for the future relationship between the UK and the EU,” Grieve said.

“I urge the incoming government to change course by putting pragmatism and national interest above ideology. Lord Kirkhope’s report provides an opportunity to work with our European partners, rebuild trust and prevent further damage.”

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